A 16-year-old youth shoots another student at a school in a small town in Oregon. A young man who had stopped taking his psychotropic medication so he “could feel the hate” decides to shoot random students at Seattle Pacific University. Even President Obama appears to have reached his limit as he laments his inability to convince Congress to pass gun legislation to reduce such incidents in the future.
School campuses have become ground zero for angry, troubled, disenfranchised souls who want to share their emotional pain with the world in the most dramatic way possible. Perhaps one reason is because schools are inhabited by youths who have not yet gained much control over their lives, and this kind of murderous act represents the shooter’s subconscious attempt to assert (and demonstrate) control over his own life and destiny.
While the motivation behind these tragic actions is not always clear, some facts are apparent. One is that our nation’s gun-ownership laws are too lax. Angry, disturbed individuals desiring to kill large numbers of people generally use guns. Why? Guns can inflict the most harm on the most victims in the shortest time, and they are easy to obtain.
Second, our nation’s mental-health commitment laws typically are too restrictive, as highlighted recently in local and national media. It is extremely difficult in most states to secure inpatient treatment for someone needing such services if that person refuses treatment.
The tragic death of Joel Reuter in Seattle is a recent example of lax laws. Despite determined efforts by his parents to get him the sustained help he needed, Washington’s very strict commitment laws proved too difficult an obstacle to overcome. Reuter, 28, was shot and killed by police on the balcony of his condo in Capitol Hill a year ago. He was mentally ill. Many advocates for people with mental illness hope the Legislature will reconsider commitment laws in 2015.
Just as problematic: how long a person is likely to remain hospitalized. Once admitted involuntarily to a hospital for psychiatric stabilization, an individual is likely to be released as soon as he or she is no longer viewed as dangerous to himself or herself or others. Thanks to advanced medications, this usually occurs within seven to 14 days. Most states, including Washington, do not have laws requiring follow-up outpatient treatment for these folks unless they have committed a significant offense due to their mental condition.
Our society is very tolerant of individuals who isolate themselves from others. We would be wise to pay attention to someone who withdraws from family or friends for an extended period of time, especially if such behavior occurs after a traumatic or very stressful event in his or her life. Of course, such a change does not necessarily mean the person will become a mass murderer, but it could well mean he or she needs help re-engaging with others.
Although our nation will never be able to eliminate all violent acts, some can be prevented. There are clear steps voters and legislators can take to address these issues, if they have the collective courage to do so.
Let’s start with the problem of gun laws. Most Americans seem to agree on a need for reasonable controls on gun ownership. The most obvious criteria might include a minimum age for the owner, perhaps 21; an absence of a history of recent serious criminal offenses, such as five to 10 years, especially those involving violence; and a lack of recent serious mental illness or substance-abuse history within five to 10 years.
Yet, based on a recent survey conducted by Elway Research, an independent, nonpartisan polling organization, state voters seem deadlocked with regard to conflicting gun-control initiates on the upcoming November ballot: Initiative 594, which would require background checks for gun purchasers at gun shows, private sales and some transfers; and Initiative 591, which seeks to prevent the state from requiring stricter background checks than national standards.
Voters need to break through this ambivalence and see the bigger picture. Without reasonable controls on gun access, there will be more gun violence in schools, workplaces and other public areas.
Washington’s commitment laws should be modified to make it somewhat easier (but not easy) to allow for involuntary short-term treatment for individuals exhibiting threatening behavior toward themselves or others. Provisions also should be enacted for the involuntary short-term outpatient treatment of those who meet certain criteria. For instance, a recent history of threatening behavior toward the self or others should require ongoing compliance with a treatment plan.
Some funding would be needed for treatment and judicial system expenses. This is particularly true in King County, which needs more inpatient psychiatric beds to remedy both the current boarding problem and future demand for such beds.
Washington state legislators took one step in this direction in this year’s legislative session by providing funding for 16 evaluation and treatment beds for King County.
However, resolving the boarding issue and funding the additional beds needed to serve severely troubled individuals who now go untreated would likely require at least another $50 million annually. That is a lot of money for sure, but it only represents roughly 0.3 percent of the state budget. It’s an investment that would help buy county residents a better night’s sleep.
Finally, public education campaigns should be developed to help people recognize when family members or friends might need mental-health or substance-use treatment, and to encourage them to arrange such assistance.
Having managed treatment programs in four states since 1974, I strongly disagree with pundits who claim the community mental-health system is broken. Mental-health professionals perform extremely important, difficult and occasionally dangerous work for inadequate pay. They are not to blame when someone with a mental illness goes on a rampage. All voters share in that responsibility.
(This article was originally published June 28, 2014 in the Seattle Times Opinion section)